SARASOTA, Fla. - Much of today’s activity at the Ed Smith Stadium complex happened out of the media’s view. Behind closed doors. Without the sounds of batting practice or games of catch.
Players met individually with executive vice president and general manager Mike Elias, manager Brandon Hyde and the coaches. Assistant general manager Sig Mejdal got the analytics ball rolling.
A rebuild and brand new organizational direction requires it.
“We’ve got a large group in there,” Elias said, his words piercing a gusting wind outside of the baseball operations center. “Everybody’s been working out. People think they’re in great shape. Brandon and the positional coaches and I have been starting individual meetings with all of the players who’ve been invited to major league camp, and we’re planning to sit down with all 60 of them or whatever the final number ends up being.
“Just get a sense of what they’ve been doing this offseason, their goals for the camp, their physical condition. Just getting to know them a little bit because they’re going to be fresh faces around here in terms of both players and staff.
“It makes camp fun and it makes camp interesting when you have a very established roster. You’re more concerned with ramping guys up and keeping them healthy and for the younger players it might not be very realistic for them to win a job, but that’s not the case here, so it’s going to be really cool in terms of, in many ways this is a tryout for a lot of these guys for a major league position.”
“It’s been unbelievable,” Hyde said. “We’ve met with a handful of guys so far. These individual meetings are wonderful in the fact that you get one-on-one times, talking a little bit about themselves, talking about their goals, tell them how we feel about them at this point, talk about the things they’re working on in spring training. Those one-on-one meetings are unbelievable valuable.”
Patience has been preached at every turn. To fans who suffered through a 115-loss season with no quick fixes. To players who are absorbing new data that threaten to leave heads spinning.
“We’re explaining to them that we’re expecting to roll out a lot of advance tools, analytics tools over the course of the year,” Elias said. “It’s not going to be an instantaneous thing. We do have some stuff that we’re rolling out right now and is ready to go, but there’s going to be more coming. And they’re excited about it because this is a tough division and all of the other opponents in our division are using this information, as well.
“They’re welcome to it. They’re open to it. They know that we have a coaching staff here that has experience using this information realistically and in individual terms rather than like a cookie cutter approach. The reception has been great on that front so far. But we’re preaching a little bit of patience with it as we get this stuff built.”
The sense here is players know the process can’t and won’t be rushed. No one is offering a timetable. No one is expecting one.
“They understand what we’re trying to do and they want to be a part of it and they recognize that there’s a lot of individual opportunity for them in a situation like this. And we’re relying on these guys,” Elias said.
“Like I said all along, I can’t wait to see who are the guys that are going to take us to the next level because they’re here now. We just want to find out. We want to see what this group has and see how it unfolds.”
The camp roster stands at 60 after the Orioles signed outfielder Eric Young Jr. to a minor league deal. Elias didn’t say that he’s done adding players, but it’s a possibility. That much was made clear today.
“I think that there’s a good chance that this is our camp roster, but there’s a lot of players out there as we all know. We’re continuing to eye that,” he said.
“I do feel like we have the numbers and the talent that we would want in terms of competitions for every position on the diamond, so we feel good about the amount of guys that we have and the mix of guys that we have for every open spot. But certainly we’re going to keep our eye on any availability to improve our organization.”
The 40-man roster didn’t undergo massive reconstruction following Elias’ arrival from the Astros front office. More like tweaking with the five additions.
“I don’t know that it was a plan,” Elias said, “but if we were making a move on the roster, we want to feel like we’re making some incremental improvement. I don’t want to just get guys off the roster because we’re trying to change things.
“There are good players here. We want to try to help the players that are here. We see things in these guys that we like. We want to have spring training to kind of all of us lay their eyes on them and it just resulted in a relatively mild winter in terms of activity.
“We also had a lot going on. We hired a manager and a major league coaching staff. I didn’t get in here until November. We hired an international scouting director. We’re hiring analytics people. We’ve got infrastructure projects going on. So there’s been a lot. We didn’t want to make any decisions with the major league roster that we’d regret just because we were a little naïve.”
Attendance at Camden Yards could take another hit this summer despite pleas from the masses to trade away marketable talent and start the rebuild. Many fans said it was overdue.
The Orioles might be a tough sell, with projections again placing them beyond the 100-loss mark, but eyes need to focus on the bigger picture. On the stages of the rebuild and the growth that begins at the lowest levels of the minors.
It can bring major returns.
Elias has lived it.
“If you like baseball, this is an interesting process and it’s a rewarding process and you get to see players grow and you get to follow them in the minor leagues all the way up in their careers,” he said.
“I can tell you from personal experience, it’s very rewarding and it’s going to be very special. As we grow as an organization and as fans come to spring training or come to our minor league affiliate that are all staggered around the Baltimore area, more or less, you have access to these guys that’s not as easy when their careers are more mature and the team is more settled.
“This is my first time to Ed Smith Stadium at all and this is a spectacular facility. I was coming from a brand new facility with Houston in Palm Beach and this is every bit as nice. I’m so excited that we have this place. This is a great place to come down and meet some of these players, see them first-hand, see some of the new faces. And as you can see, it’s beautiful.”
A host of younger arms will reach for a spot, but Elias suggested that the Orioles could use an “opener,” made so popular last summer by a host of teams, including the Rays and Athletics. The strategy also played out in the postseason, with a reliever starting games and the baton passed.
“We’ll bandy that around,” Elias said. “I think it’s very personnel-based. If you look at the opener strategy, it does not make sense for every team or every rotation or every bullpen. I can see a scenario or two where we might use it this year and it’s something that we’ll talk about with Brandon and Sig and everyone, but it’s not a decision that needs to be made at the beginning of spring training. We’ll wait until the season starts.”
Hyde’s morning included a meeting with Karns, who agreed to a contract that guarantees $800,000 and includes a possible $200,000o in incentives.
“He’s impressive,” Hyde said. “And I’m excited about E.Y. Jr., too. I’ve heard a lot of really good things. I’ve seen them both play. I have some close friends that have had both of those guys in the past that say unbelievable things about both of them, so I’m exciting to get them in here and watch them work out.”
There are going to be certain times, like overseeing the drills on all of the practice fields, when it really hits Hyde that he’s living out his dream.
“You know what? I haven’t had time to sit back and just kind of relax and think about that,” he said.
“I think there are certain things along the way that, yeah, it’s super cool and I’ve worked hard to get to this point. I feel great about where we are, I feel great about our preparation going into spring training. I’m looking forward to, I think maybe tomorrow, or the first day of full squad, when I stand there with a fungo and it’s like, ‘This is our club.’ But yeah, honestly, I’ve been so busy that I haven’t reflected too much.”
Hyde’s already got an idea of how he’ll handle the veteran players’ travel schedules. The few who qualify in camp.
“I have a lot of respect for the veteran player,” he said. “I think that we always treated our veteran guys in Chicago well. We don’t have the same volume of that type of player here this year, but there are certain things where guys have earned respect and the guys that have done things in this game have earned ... they’ve earned the respect and they are allowed to possibly miss a road trip or maybe reschedule some things around home so they don’t have to travel. Those types of things.
“That’s building a winning culture.”